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Strategy and Transformation

Differences Between Usability Testing & User Acceptance Testing

Are usability testing and user acceptance testing (UAT) the same? Some people in the past have told me “yes,” because they are both about the user. My guess is that people who aren’t familiar with UAT see the word “user” and assume it means the “real-life” user. I don’t know who came up with the term “user acceptance testing,” or whether UAT or usability testing came first, but I have seen problems arise because of confusion over these two terms.

My suggestion: UAT should be changed to Requirement Acceptance Testing (RAT)

Techopedia defines UAT as follows,

User acceptance testing (UAT) is the last phase of the software testing process. During UAT, actual software users test the software to make sure it can handle required tasks in real-world scenarios, according to specifications. UAT is one of the final and critical software project procedures that must occur before newly developed software is rolled out to the market. UAT is also known as beta testing, application testing, or end user testing.

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I’ve never seen UAT performed with actual, literal, real, end users. End users as in customers like my neighbor Don. Just a regular, “real” kind of guy who laughs at some of my jokes. Normally I see UAT conducted by trained IT professionals who compare the software to the business requirement document (BRD) to make sure it is successful in meeting the requirements of the product owner. UAT testers make sure that what the product owner wanted the software to do is, in fact, achievable with the software. All of the user acceptance criteria are specifically called out in the BRD. Yes, the software is tested just like it would be deployed to the market. However, only a closed-system of specific pre-determined scenarios are run.
Usability testing is all about user variation. UX researchers want to find out if the software matches the mental model of our target users and is easy to accomplish the tasks our product owners think are valuable to end users. A mental model is a “real” user’s expectation based on their experiences. One example of a mental model would be highlighting active text links in a different color. Most users would expect that attribute to be an active link.

Going mental with users

Mental models are typically seen as a somewhat common perspective shared between many users. However, in usability testing, researchers are also looking to understand what perspectives and expectations are not as common or shared. As researchers, we then have the responsibility to decide just how far off-center we need to make recommendations back to the development team to accommodate the differences between our target users. User acceptance testing is an organized process where we test predefined tasks, but it does not fulfill our desire to understand all the different ways users might accomplish those tasks.
Usability testing is designed to allow the participants (real users) to show how they would accomplish the task and for researchers to observe that without affecting the participants’ behavior. In a monitored testing environment, where a researcher is present, usability testing also allows for interaction after the task is completed to gain clarification of:

  • What the participant found difficult about the task
  • What would improve the ease or success of the task
  • How the task is seen by the participant in relation to the larger view of the software

Are UAT and usability testing the same? You tell me. What if a business requirement was to develop square wheels for a car so it wouldn’t be prone to rolling downhill when unattended? It’s easy enough to test if those usability requirements have been successfully met with UAT. But when it comes to the bottom line of the company, how many of those wheels are likely to be purchased by real-life users who would enjoy that type of ride?
If your desire is profitability as a company, then consider conducting usability testing early on in the development cycle to ensure that when it comes time for “requirement acceptance testing” (RAT), you bring a product to market that won’t leave your company looking like a RAT.

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